December 4, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Bob Wojnowski

The heat is on Lions coach Jim Schwartz, GM Martin Mayhew

Lions GM Martin Mayhew, left, and coach Jim Schwartz aren't in imminent danger of being fired, but this season’s failures have increased scrutiny on them. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Allen Park -- We should've seen this coming, and some actually did. The Lions are built for bursts of promise, not sustained success, not yet.

The larger issue is, Jim Schwartz and his coaching staff should've seen it coming. General manager Martin Mayhew should've seen it coming.

There's still a quarter of the season left and the 4-8 Lions already are on the draft clock, and Schwartz and Mayhew are on the clock, too.

Schwartz won't be fired, not after signing a contract extension in the offseason. Mayhew won't be fired, and I don't think it's time for either to go.

I do think it's time for serious dissection, as danger time for this regime approaches. In the past year, the Lions went from irrelevance to 10-6 and their first playoff spot in 12 years, to this dramatic collapse. They've lost four consecutive, three at home in the final minutes to good teams, which probably stirs fanciful notions about how close they are.

Soon, the Lions will have critical free-agent decisions and another high draft pick. They must revamp their defense, their running game, even their receiving corps. They've made some poor decisions, more likely out of arrogance than incompetence, and the stakes are rising.

Schwartz and Mayhew are bright men, and I still believe both can be successful here. But this ridiculously inconsistent season — after a ridiculously rocky offseason — raises concerns. The failure to adequately address gaping holes in the secondary is inexcusable. The Lions aren't as talented as they think, and the coaches and front office haven't been as clever as advertised.

"I wouldn't say we've regressed," Schwartz said Monday. "We've gone off track, for sure. … There's no doubt we can compete with anybody, and there's no doubt we can beat anybody."

Limited options

It's easy to get knocked off track in the NFL. An injury here, a suspension there, a mistake here and here and here. The question is, which is the mirage? The comeback victories last season, or the late pratfalls — 3-7 in games decided by eight points or fewer — this season?

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are putting up video-game numbers, but the crunch-time production is way down. Opponents have figured out — duh — if you stuff Johnson in the red zone, the Lions have few options. And the Lions have countered with, well, nothing. Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell show occasional bursts, but there's no consistent running threat, and most of the wide receivers outside of Johnson are gone — Ryan Broyles (knee), Nate Burleson (leg), Titus Young (immaturity).

The opposition's response seems to have baffled Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, which is why Linehan could be the guy to go. He was given the most assets, and the offense somehow has been productive and disappointing at the same time. Linehan and Gunther Cunningham are respected coordinators, but if they've made shrewd adjustments, I haven't noticed.

We can gripe about the defense, and we should. But to expect that patchwork secondary — other than Chris Houston — to hold up is foolish. To expect the defensive line, even with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley playing well, to completely mask the secondary is foolish.

The offense was supposed to be the difference, and it's simply too sporadic. Stafford is on pace for another 5,000-yard season, but his accuracy has dropped from 63.5 percent to 60.5. He has 16 touchdown passes, down from 41. Johnson is on pace to surpass Jerry Rice's season yardage record but has only five touchdowns, down from 16.

Poor personnel decisions

Flashy plays, hollow numbers. This is where the arrogance comes in, and where Schwartz and Mayhew get in trouble. It was a big deal the Lions returned 21 of 22 starters from a playoff team, but now it smacks of complacency. The Lions look like a team that thought it was mostly set, and could roll with more of the same.

The NFL doesn't work that way. The league is littered with teams that went from 10-6 to 4-12. A lot of people suggested the Lions would take a step back, and while they publicly acknowledged it, privately they must have scoffed at it, based on their inaction.

Even with a horrid defense, they stuck stubbornly to their best-player-available approach and used their top draft picks on offensive lineman Riley Reiff and Broyles. Both have shown promise but haven't made major impacts. It's not the first time the Lions' obsession with offense has bitten them. Jahvid Best's career is in jeopardy because of concussions, and it's a sad story. But they knew his history when they traded into the first round to get him, and while he made a difference for a while, the risk ultimately wasn't worth it.

Mayhew's defensive acquisitions in the offseason were paltry — free-agent cornerback Jacob Lacey and five mid-to-late draft picks, all now injured or unused. Schwartz noted rookie Bill Bentley was on his way to a starting position and safety Louis Delmas has struggled to stay healthy.

No excuses. Since starting 5-0 in 2011, the Lions have gone 9-15. Their secondary has been a mess for years, and after the latest debacle, the 35-33 loss to the Colts, an angry Schwartz issued a warning: "This is a tough league for tough people, and we'll find out who's tough and who's not."

The Lions face lots of tough decisions, including with pending free agents on their defense — Delmas, Houston, Cliff Avril, DeAndre Levy, Justin Durant, Corey Williams. This crushing season is a handy reminder that teams must evolve and everyone always is being judged, from the bottom of the roster to the top of the organization.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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